The second season of Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors (streaming on Hotstar) is a very timely and sensitive interrogation into the widely prevalent reality of marital rape which has been both normalised and invisibilised in patriarchal societies for the longest time.
One of the biggest strengths of the series is that though it professes to belong to the genre of the crime thriller, the issue at hand is depicted through an extremely sensitive lens which mercifully does not turn the viewer/consumer into a voyeur by either trying to offer titillation or by sensationalising the crime.
Instead, what we are made to see and viscerally feel is the complete and absolute absence of a language, a vocabulary or some anchoring element in the semantic field within the reach of the abused to express her trauma – or even to open her mouth to seek justice. She simply does not have the language to tell the world what she was going through and how it made her feel.
The survivor, Anu Chandra, who is both emotionally and physically abused by her high-profile lawyer husband Bikram Chandra – and who she stabs, leading to his death – is unable to admit to the abuse. This is because she has been made to normalise it and also because of the deep sense of shame and taboo associated with it.
The narrative makes an incisive statement by portraying her as the voiceless victim “branded criminal” by juxtaposing her against another prison inmate from a socially lower class, who is ironically serving a term for the same reason as Anu – implying that violence, abuse and rape in a marriage/relationship cut across class and caste barriers too.
The series exposes the viewer to various shades of abuse rampant and entrenched in the institution of marriage which unfolds like a power play where one partner invariably decides, dissipates, expresses and regulates on behalf of both the partners.
On one extreme of the spectrum is Bikram Chandra, who designs his own world with its own rules and regulations, and binaries of right and wrong. He rapes his wife repeatedly under the pretext of meting out punishment to her for failing to conform to the standards of perfection set by him, thus devising his own mental framework to justify the violence he inflicts.
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Somewhere in the middle is sub-inspector Harsh, an officer on the Bikram Chandra murder case. He is also shown to be indifferent to his wife’s consent to sex, but wouldn’t normally be categorised as a sociopath like Bikram Chandra. Harsh has already decided for his wife Gauri (who also happens to be his colleague in the police force) that once they have a baby she needs to look for a part time job as her hands will be full looking, after the house, the family and the new-born baby.
At the other extreme of this very interesting spectrum is defence lawyer Madhav Mishra, who is fighting Anu’s case. He’s an adorable and empathetic man, a brave lawyer who goes against the entire lawyer community to fight Anu’s case. And yet, he is also someone who is emotionally abusive to his newly-wed wife as he continues to evade any form of intimacy with her and persistently displays a complete lack of interest in her sexual, social and emotional needs.
This kind of abuse, which is not as explicit as the other forms, is foregrounded time and again through his wife’s occasional outbursts, especially once when she accuses him of being ashamed of her since she is a village girl and finally when she decides to leave him for good and accuses him of being a hypocrite who flaunts his empathy and sensitivity to the outside world but doesn’t have any for his wife.
The fact that this is the exact juncture when Madhav decides to spring a surprise on his wife by showing her two tickets to Goa for their honeymoon, after seven months of persistent distancing, unfortunately normalises the husband’s relatively powerful position in the marriage. He is the one who has finally decided to engage in intimacy and sexual relation with his wife after having disregarded her advances and having deprived her of it for so long.
There is also the absent husband, lawyer Nikhat Hussain’s father, who has abandoned her mother for another woman, but who her mother desperately clings to, albeit remotely, possibly because that is the value system she has been indoctrinated into. On the one hand, we have the devout Muslim wife eagerly accommodating her husband and his second wife, and on the other, we have the self-effacing Hindu wife of the lawyer Dipen Prabhu, who is the public prosecutor in Anu’s case and who has certain very fixed and clear notions of ideal womanhood and wifely duties, based on his readings of the Manusmriti.
Prabhu’s character stands testimony to the extent to which a fundamentalist ideology informed by patriarchal religious doctrines can translate into a personal vendetta against a woman who needs to be punished for having supposedly foregone her wifely duties. Prabhu does not flinch from resorting to unethical measures and running a smear campaign against Anu Chandra which is outside the space of the courtroom to weaken possible public sympathy against her. The insensitivity and bias of the patriarchal legal system which systematically puts women at a disadvantage is evident in Prabhu’s clinching statement as he expresses his hope in winning the case since “marital rape” thankfully is “not a crime” in India.
The narrative makes a sincere attempt to educate people through lawyer Nikhat Hussain’s closing argument (who is fighting Anu’s case along with Madhav Mishra) a caveat that rapists and abusive people can seem to be as normal as any body else, thus dismantling popular culture’s decades long efforts that have gone into stereotyping them as men of a particular appearance, belonging to a particular social class and behaving in a particular way.
Likewise, the narrative engages in a subtle creation of a safe space for the victim to find expression for her trauma, which is first enabled by Madhav, who requests Nikhat, a woman, to lead the case and interact with Anu and later through the solidarity shown by Vijay Chandra (Bikram’s mother) and Meera Mathur (a high profile lawyer and family friend of the Chandras who is pulling a lot of strings to win the case) towards Anu.
In 2018, Lili Loofbourow, in her piece ‘The Female Price of Male Pleasure’, described “ how normalised prioritising male sexual pleasure is and how it relates to ignoring women’s needs and even pain”. Loofbourow quotes a doctor who says, women will not say no to sex and silently provide it “with their teeth tightly clenched”.
Eminent lawyer Emma Lindsay wrote in 2017, “This need to protect men from the truth of my reality if it will hurt them… has extended so deeply that I have laughed off sexual assault so that I would not hurt the feelings of the man who assaulted me.”
Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors delivers a compelling jolt, forcing one to look the ugly truth – which has been forever been forced to remain behind many closed bedroom doors – in the eye.
Dr. Shyaonti Talwar is an academician, researcher and a writer whose areas of interest include art, culture, lifestyle, social inequality, literature, mythology and gender.
Featured image credit: Hotstar